Vegas on the Water

A ship so big it has seven neighborhoods, four pools, an amphitheater and more. Who needs to go ashore?

An early look at the longest, tallest, widest, heaviest and most expensive cruise liner in the world, before its much-anticipated maiden voyage in December.
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, October 4, 2009

There's a story about a grizzled foreign correspondent in Asia who once was taken to task over a taxi fare on an expense report. He defended it as routine, but the accountants pointed out that he'd been reporting from an aircraft carrier at sea on the day in question. Without missing a beat, the correspondent growled, "Well, do you know how big those things are?"

I couldn't help thinking of that joke while in Finland last week, touring Royal Caribbean International's new Oasis of the Seas, a ship that eclipses the U.S. Navy's Nimitz-class supercarriers and will be the world's largest cruise liner when it makes its much-anticipated maiden voyage in December. As I stood in the bow, it didn't seem completely unreasonable to take a taxi to the stern, almost a quarter-mile away. In fact, the meter in a D.C. cab would charge 25 cents for the distance.

Under construction in the quaint port town of Turku since 2006, the Oasis of the Seas is longer, taller, wider, heavier and more expensive than any other passenger ship ever built. It's five times the size of the Titanic and more than half again as large as the mammoth Queen Mary 2. A piece of it will have to be retracted just so it can squeeze under a bridge and make it out to the Atlantic. On its 18 decks, a crew of 2,165 will tend to as many as 6,296 paying customers, nearly 45 percent more than the largest cruise ships now operating, the Freedom-class vessels launched by Royal Caribbean three years ago.

But the Oasis of the Seas isn't just a jumbo version of its predecessors. More important than its staggering size is what its designers have done with the extra space: filled it with attractions never before seen on a cruise ship, including an open-air park with trees and hanging gardens, a boardwalk-style area with a merry-go-round, a pool that changes into a stage for high-diving shows and a theater that has booked the Broadway musical "Hairspray."

In short, Royal Caribbean has created a Las Vegas resort that floats -- yes, there's a casino, too -- and the closest thing in real life to the Buy n Large luxury spaceships in "WALL-E," where humans spend the centuries getting fat after mass consumerism has left the Earth a polluted mess.

In fact, the ship -- built at a cost of $1.4 billion, most of it borrowed money -- represents a huge gamble that mass consumerism is alive and well, the state of the global economy and environment notwithstanding. Royal Caribbean's chairman, Richard Fain, is betting that the Oasis will defy the recession and expand the industry's market by bringing in what he describes on his blog as the "poor souls" who are the "most die-hard cruise resisters." In fact, he's doubling down: A sister ship of the same size, the Allure of the Seas, is under construction in Turku and scheduled to set sail next year.

Wall Street has been skeptical, and some cruising enthusiasts have voiced concern as well, complaining that the Oasis will be too crowded, that its prices are too high, and that all the onboard amenities will ruin the magic of an intimate journey on the open seas to an exotic destination.

But Paul Motter, editor of the enthusiast Web site Cruisemates, predicted that the Oasis of the Seas, love it or hate it, will do for cruise ships what Disneyland did for amusement parks. "The image of cruising is about to change forever," he said. "I think it's going to be the first ship where people truly book just for the ship and hardly care where it goes."

Viewed up close from the outside, the ship doesn't seem like an industry game-changer. It looks instead as if someone decided to stack an ugly, imposing chunk of the Crystal City Hilton or the Watergate on the keel. But step aboard, and it immediately feels different.

Raimund Gschaider, the Oasis hotel director, took me through the vessel's belly and then up to Deck 5, where arriving guests will get their first glimpse of the inside. The ship was already in the water and had completed its first sea trial, but it was still littered with scaffolding, tools and building materials and buzzing with thousands of workers trying to finish the interior.

Even with the clutter, though, it was clear that coming aboard the Oasis would be less like climbing onto a boat than like walking up the concourse of a fancy sports stadium. Instead of placing a block of cabins in the middle of the ship, the builders have stacked the rooms on either side, a radical innovation that left an airy, glass-enclosed atrium longer than a football field at the core.

Gschaider called it the Royal Promenade and pointed out stores, restaurants and the first cupcake shop at sea. I told him it felt like a nice shopping mall. "It's a shame you've never been on a cruise; then you'd understand how different this is," he replied, noting that only a few ships in the world have a space like this, and that the one on the Oasis is twice as wide as the largest out there now.

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